Foodborne notifiable diseases - Q&As

What will my doctor do?

It may not be immediately apparent to you – or your health practitioner – that your illness could be food related, particularly if you have several symptoms. So you may be asked to provide a stool sample which will be sent to a laboratory for diagnosis.

If the results of your tests show that you are suffering from an illness that is possibly foodborne and is a ‘notifiable’ disease also, the doctor is legally required to report the illness to the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) at your local public health unit (PHU).

Once the MOH has been notified, health professionals within the PHU can investigate the cause of your illness and work to control spread of the disease.

What is a notifiable disease?

A notifiable disease is one that is covered by New Zealand’s notifiable disease regulations. There are 50 notifiable diseases and at least nine are food-related. The most common is campylobacteriosis, followed by salmonellosis. Others include those caused by bacterial and viral pathogens such as Listeria and Hepatitis A.

What information is needed?

The PHU officers may contact you directly by telephone or by post to confirm details of your age, gender and ethnicity. They may also want to find out more about your symptoms and may ask questions to help them better understand how you may have been exposed to the disease and how it may be affecting others in the community.

For example, you may have joined a party of friends for dinner at a restaurant, in somebody’s home, or at a café. Perhaps you dined alone but there may be others who ate at the same premises at the same time who also got sick. Perhaps you bought some ready-to-eat food that is later found to have had the same disagreeable effect on other consumers. All of these are possibilities and may need further investigation.

How is the information used?

Surveys and questionnaires are often used to provide an overall picture of the origin and spread of the disease. From this, risk factors may be identified and preventative action may be considered to help prevent or protect consumers both immediately and in the future. The outcome of the illness is also logged, to assist in assessing the severity of the disease and its costs to society.

What happens to the information?

The information about the disease is collected at a local level by the PHU and at the national level by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) on behalf of the Ministry of Health. ESR operates the national notifiable disease surveillance database, called EpiSurv.

A summary of notifiable disease information is sent through to ESR from public health units around New Zealand on a daily basis. (You can see the results of these reports on the ESR surveillance website: www.surv.esr.cri.nz.) Information about Salmonella and other outbreaks is also reported to the World Health Organisation as part of ESR’s enteric (intestinal) disease reference functions and as part of New Zealand’s international health obligations.

How does any of this benefit me?

Collating this information helps government develop intervention initiatives and national policies that contribute to the overall health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. It also provides national and local authorities with information on any outbreaks of infectious diseases (including foodborne ones) that may have occurred in their area, and is used to identify trends and monitor the impact of interventions. It also helps predict emerging hazards or at-risk population groups who may be more susceptible.